Barry Wright 1 , David Marshall 1 , Joy Adamson 2 , Hannah Ainsworth 2 , Shehzad Ali 3 , Victoria Allgar 3 , Danielle Collingridge Moore 3 , Elizabeth Cook 2 , Paul Dempster 3 , Lisa Hackney 1 , Dean McMillan 3 , Dominic Trepél 3 , Chris Williams 1
A Social Story™ (Carol Gray) is a child-friendly intervention that is used to give children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) social information in situations where they have social difficulties. Limited evidence mainly using single-case designs suggests that they can reduce anxiety and challenging behaviour.
The objectives were to conduct a systematic review, use this to develop a manualised intervention and run a feasibility trial to inform a fully powered randomised controlled trial (RCT) on their clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness in schools.
This is a three-stage study following the Medical Research Council framework for complex interventions. Specifically, it involved a theoretical phase, a qualitative stage and a feasibility trial stage.
Qualitative interviews and focus groups took place in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service and primary care settings. The feasibility study took place in 37 local mainstream schools.
Fifty children (aged 5–15 years) in mainstream school settings with a diagnosis of ASD were entered into the trial. For each child, an associated teacher and parent was also recruited.
The intervention was a goal-setting session followed by a manualised toolkit (including a training session) for creating Social Stories™ for use with school-aged children. The comparator treatment was a goal-setting session followed by an attention control. Both arms received treatment as usual.
Outcomes tested as part of the feasibility study included child- and proxy-completed questionnaires for mental health, quality of life and goal-based outcome measures. Adults additionally completed behaviour diaries and the parental stress index.
The review found that the research into social stories is predominantly based in the USA, carried out in under-12-year-olds and using single-case designs. Most studies either did not follow established Social Story criteria or did not report if they did. The assessment of effectiveness presents a largely positive picture but is limited by methodological issues. There were no adequate RCTs and insufficient information to assess a number of important sources of potential bias in most studies. A manualised intervention was produced using an iterative process between user focus groups and a writing team, and assessed in the feasibility study. All 50 participant groups were recruited within the study time frame. Two outcome measures, the Social Responsiveness Scale-2 and the custom-made goal-based measure, showed high levels of completion rates and appeared to be capturing social and behaviour skills targeted by the use of Social Stories. Detailed recommendations for a full trial are provided.
Blinding of participants was not feasible. Treatment fidelity was not assessed because of low levels of story return rates.
The study showed that a fully powered RCT is feasible with an extended geographical footprint. A large amount of data and information has helped to inform the design of this RCT, which will be the subject of a future research grant application. Future work could focus on developing an appropriate blinded outcome measure for this population.